Unavoidably Immersed

“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language

There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque.  Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.

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All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.

Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.

koshari

Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.

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My new oyster.

Franglish Blunders: Learning French in France

My host mother has an excellent selection of jams out for breakfast every morning.

You can buy this brand of French jam at Jewel!

Cherry, fig, orange, strawberry – all the good stuff. Just a table spoon of any one of them takes my daily carton of plain yogurt from delicious to fantastical wonderland. One particularly creamy yogurt mixed with a particularly fresh plop of fig preserves caused me to exclaim to my host mother: “Mmm j’adore le preservatif avec le yaourt naturel!”

The actual word for preserves or jam in French is la confiture. I, on the other hand, told her I adore condoms in my yogurt.

After we all had a good laugh, I convinced myself that WHATEVER, French people will find my confusions charming and my accent cute so SCREW THIS. That’s probably the most important change in mindset one needs to have if one wants to be fluent in another language; getting comfortable with sounding like an absolute goof. So I killed that stereotype in my head about French people being super fancy and uppity pretty quickly after that. And it proved to be true. They really appreciate it when foreigners try to learn their language because god knows the French are mad proud of the French language. (See Academie francaise). But even so, not every single word out of a French person’s mouth is a profoundly eloquent word. Just like in American English, there’s a lot of “ums” (ehhh) and “you knows” (d’accord) and “really” (vraiment) and “oh my gods” (oh la la), etc. Je is pronounced like a sliver (zhhh) and il/elle becomes a hiss (eeee).

Being thrust into another country, into an unfamiliar language initially feels a lot like how I imagine being illiterate feels. My first week, people were abuzz around me, all this information was being exchanged, and I just got none of it. Streams of ideas, stories, sentiments, instructions attacked me from all angles and my inability to understand their rapid-fire French was a waterproof sealant over my mind. But I was surprised how much I was able comprehend a foreign language after a substantial period of full immersion. Poor French used to be the language of the world (where do you think the term lingua franca comes from), but as an American, native English-speaker, I found that so many students and people want to learn or improve their English. Finding French people to strike up a conversation with wasn’t hard and probably had the most positive impact on my French speaking abilities and my study abroad experience in general. Meeting these wonderful friends and teachers motivated me to improve my pronunciation and broaden my vocabulary so that I could understand them more and form a closer bond.  A much more effective motivation than just getting an A on a French test and then pressing flush as soon as I turn it in. 

We are the presents under the tree. Friends are presents. Sharing an experience is the ultimate present.

I’m going to try to improve upon my current level of French when I get back to the States. At the very least, it will serve as a constant memory of the comical-mortifying yet dream time I had in France. Wish me luck 🙂